www.suffolkchurches.com - a journey through the churches of Suffolk
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In the early 1990s, I met a lovely man called Ted Wells, a retired Church of England minister. His last post had been as Vicar here at St Nicholas, and he had been the incumbent at the time of the church's redundancy in the early 1980s. He told me that they had left the church exactly as it was after the last evensong, the hymn books put neatly away on the shelves, but the hymn numbers still up on the hymn board. They walked out together, some in tears, and locked the doors behind them, and that was that. The church just sat there, waiting for someone to come and love it again.
On Historic Churches Trust bike ride days, it was possible to visit St Nicholas, and even ten years after redundancy it was still like entering a working church. Only the people were missing. You can see some photographs I took in the autumn of 1999 here.
Care of the church was vested in the Ipswich Historic Churches Trust, which had been set up by the Ipswich Borough Council. The Trust was well-meaning, but poorly funded; it did a good job, as far as it could, and St Nicholas was carefully maintained. The redundancies of other Ipswich churches was not so fortuitous; the inside of St Lawrence was reduced almost to a ruin; St Peter is also in a poorly state inside. St Clement was full of junk for decades until it caught fire. It has since been restored very well. Up until the end of the century, the only medieval church in Ipswich to have found a new use was St Stephen, now the Tourist Information Centre, run, ironically, by Ipswich Borough Council itself. Perhaps St Nicholas got off lightly.
The alternative to the Ipswich Historic Churches Trust solution was that care of St Nicholas might have been handed to the Redundant Churches Fund, now the Churches Conservation Trust, who would have done an equally good job, no doubt. But there would have been one important difference, as we shall see.
St Nicholas stands among the high-rise offices between the docks and the town centre, in an area that 1960s planners foresaw as the business district of an Ipswich that would eventually be home to half a million people. Fortunately, they were eventually taken away by men in white coats, and the area has been developed with less brutal and lighter office blocks. One of the best is next door to the church, Churchgates House, and it was to here that, in the late 1990s, the Anglican Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich moved its offices.
In the Spring of 2001, the Diocese bought this church for the princely sum of one pound. Having overseen its redundancy barely twenty years earlier, you might think that the Diocese had a bit of a cheek. But, like God, the Anglican Diocese moves in mysterious ways. It was the same month that the Diocese had sold Charsfield vicarage, apparently against the wishes of the Charsfield PCC, for £475,000. To read the Diocese's publication The Church in Suffolk, you wouldn't know that there had been anything at all controversial about these two actions.
If the Churches Conservation Trust had cared for St Nicholas during its redundancy, there would have been an onus on the Diocese to pay the money back that had been spent on St Nicholas during the redundant years. With the IHCT, of course, no such onus existed. You'd expect the Diocese to be slightly embarrassed about this, but no. "I am particularly grateful to the Ipswich Historic Churches Trust for their husbandry of St Nicholas", said Nicholas Edgell, Diocesan Secretary, in the July 2001 edition of The Church in Suffolk. "Without their care and maintenance of the church over the past twenty years, this exciting project would not have been possible". I suppose that he might have meant that, had circumstances been different, the Diocese would not have been able to add it to their property portfolio at such a laughably small price.
Plans were soon unveiled for St Nicholas. It would be converted into a kind of conference centre; the Diocese would use it, but it would also be available for outside users. Most spectacularly, a glass link corridor would be put in place from the east end of the south aisle into Churchgates House itself. However, the church then stood empty and boarded up for a number of years, attracting vandals, especially on the Cromwell Square side which had become a mecca for skateboarders.
Cromwell is not the only famous name associated with this part of Ipswich. Back in the 1470s, it may have been that a butcher whose shop lay opposite the east wall of the churchyard presented his baby for holy baptism at the new church of St Nicholas. It would have been a highly symbolic and moving occasion, as all medieval baptisms were, with the administration of salt and saliva, oil and water, candles and white garments. What would have been the most memorable in later years for those present, though, was that the baby grew up to be Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor of England.
There's actually no evidence for this, but it is a good story, and one that the Diocese used to promote interest in its bargain purchase. "The new centre we are planning... will make it a new focal point for the Church and Business community in Ipswich", said Nicholas Edgell.
Little remains to show that the Wolseys were ever here. A gateway barely survives at St Peter; it was the watergate entrance to the unfinished college. There is a 1950s plaque on a building in St Nicholas street to show where the shop may or may not have been. The church which they may, or may not, have known, is one of the smallest of the town centre medieval churches, although the tower of 1886 by Edward Bishopp competes well with the towering office blocks that rise on every side. No expense was spared by the Victorians in restoring it to a medieval glory greater than it ever exhibited at the time. Bishopp's finishing touch is a fine statue of St Nicholas sitting in a niche at the top of the western face watching out over the traffic.
The pinnacled top, reminiscent of Suffolk's great cloth churches, reflects boldly from the face of the famous Willis Faber building. The equally famous Unitarian Chapel also looks across the square, although houses filled this gap until the 1970s. There are curious dormer windows halfway along the roof of St Nicholas, which we will come back to in a moment.
Inside, the church was almost entirely Victorianised in 1848. This was a fairly low-brow restoration, before the full flow of the Ecclesiological movement had reached Suffolk. The 17th century pulpit survived, and during the course of the century, attempts were made to enhance this early restoration; when St Lawrence was restored in the 1860s the font there was moved here. But St Nicholas has always been most famous for some Saxon and Norman reliefs, outstanding in a county that has virtually no others of these.
In August, 2005, on the hottest day of the year so far, I went back to St Nicholas for the first time in almost five years. I enquired in the bookshop which now operates in the vestry if it was possible to see in the church. The request was met with a little surprise, but someone was dispatched to 'the offices' to find someone else to let me in. I had assumed this person would appear carrying a set of keys, but in fact this wasn't necessary; all we had to do was to step behind the bookshelves that spill into the chancel, and we were there.
Curiously, these bookshelves hide the great treasures of the church, the Saxon and Norman reliefs.
They stand in the north wall of the chancel. Because of the bookshelves, they are rather hard to photograph. One is an ancient carving of St Michael fighting a dragon. What makes it more interesting, however, is that it also bears an Anglo-Saxon inscription: HER SANCTUS MICHAEL FEHT WID DANE DRAGON. Given that St Nicholas was built in the 14th century this relief must be at least 300 years older than the church. To increase the interest even further, we know that St Nicholas was built on the site of an Anglo-Saxon church dedicated to St Michael. Almost certainly then, this is a survival from the earlier church. Incredibly, it was imbedded in the exterior of the south wall until 1948.
Another stone is semi-circular, almost certainly a tympanum from a Norman door. It has carvings on both sides, on one an animal (a boar?) feeding. The proportions suggest a date of about 1100, again before the current church. Roy Tricker suggests it may be from the church of All Saints, which stood on the road from London at Handford Bridge, site of one of the three Saxon settlements from which Ipswich grew.
Yet more fragments show priests and deacons in their vestments celebrating Mass. During the mid-1990s the stones were removed to the Victoria and Albert Museum for temporary exhibition; they were returned, and were in situ when this church was temporarily used for exhibitions by the Ipswich Art Society in 1999, but there was some concern that the museum might be their final destination. However, they are still here.
The font is a good one; the bowl features sixteen niches, two on each panel, which were presumably painted at one time, perhaps with Saints. The stem is supported by the four Evangelists, each holding a scroll. This font would have been a symptom of the glory of the medieval English Catholic Church, of which every trace has been lost at St Nicholas - or, that is to say, almost every trace.
Look up. There are dormer windows, one on each side at the east end of the nave. Instead of a clerestory, they were designed to give added light to the great rood, a late 15th century reminder of the central mystery of the Catholic faith. Cautley thought that the exteriors were the original. They are not unique, but they are very rare. It is a wonder they have survived, when you think they are five hundred years old.
What do I think of the conversion? Externally, everything is good. I like the linking glass atrium, currently in use as a coffee shop, a great deal. The bookshop is awkward, spilling out as it does into the chancel. And the centre itself? Well, elsewhere I have congratulated the Tourist Information Centre on the way they have preserved so much of the internal integrity at St Stephen while still making it so much their own. Now, St Nicholas did not have such an important interior as St Stephen, with the exception of the priceless reliefs, but I couldn't help being surprised that rather more had not been done with it. Essentially, all that has happened inside is that the pews have been removed and a temporary stage has been put at the east end, blocking the view of the sanctuary. A false floor was been put in to protect what I remember as ten-a-penny 19th century tiles. Tables are laid out as if for a wedding reception. Having criticised the way that the conversion came about, I have to say that it could have been so much worse. Perhaps the Ipswich Historic Churches route was the best one after all, although it cannot be hoped that there will be an equally satisfactory solution for the other churches in its care.
Standing in the new centre, I couldn't help thinking that it was a lot like being in St Nicholas five years previously, before all this happened. I wondered what Ted Wells made of it, if he is still alive. Still the air of a Victorian church in the shell of a medieval one, still the sense of calm against the traffic outside. No open doors, but not the business centre some had feared, nor, apparently, the cynical attempt at a money-spinner some had predicted.
Not exciting, then; but the intention is at least honourable. Amen to that, if nothing else.
St Nicholas, Cromwell Square, Ipswich, is open daily; ask in the shop or cafe for access.